Saturday, September 02, 2017

Quartz--the housing market crash of `08 was catalyzed by house-flipping and not poor subprime borrowers defaulting--remembering the old real estate scene of Mars Hill

The grim tale of America’s “subprime mortgage crisis” delivers one of those stinging moral slaps that Americans seem to favor in their histories. Poor people were reckless and stupid, banks got greedy. Layer in some Wall Street dark arts, and there you have it: a global financial crisis.

Dark arts notwithstanding, that’s not what really happened, though.

Mounting evidence suggests that the notion that the 2007 crash happened because people with shoddy credit borrowed to buy houses they couldn’t afford is just plain wrong. The latest comes in a new NBER working paper arguing that it was wealthy or middle-class house-flipping speculators who blew up the bubble to cataclysmic proportions, and then wrecked local housing markets when they defaulted en masse.

Analyzing a huge dataset of anonymous credit scores from Equifax, a credit reporting bureau, the economistsStefania Albanesi of the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Geneva’s Giacomo De Giorgi, and Jaromir Nosal of Boston College—found that the biggest growth of mortgage debt during the housing boom came from those with credit scores in the middle and top of the credit score distribution—and that these borrowers accounted for a disproportionate share of defaults.
As for those with low credit scores—the “subprime” borrowers who supposedly caused the crisis—their borrowing stayed virtually constant throughout the boom. And while it’s true that these types of borrowers usually default at relatively higher rates, they didn’t after the 2007 housing collapse. The lowest quartile in the credit score distribution accounted for 70% of foreclosures during the boom years, falling to just 35% during the crisis.

So why were relatively wealthier folks borrowing so much?

Recall that back then the mantra was that housing prices would keep rising forever. Since owning a home is one of the best ways to build wealth in America, most of those with sterling credit already did. Low rates encouraged some of them to parlay their credit pedigree and growing existing home value into mortgages for additional homes. Some of these were long-term purchases (e.g. vacation homes, homes held for rental income). But as a Federal Reserve Bank of New York report from 2011 reveals (pdf, p.26), an increasing share bought with the aim to “flip” the home a few months or years later for a tidy profit.

and there's another link

The proposal that house-flipping catalyzed the housing crash rather than subprime lending to those who otherwise should not have gotten housing loans reminds me of a fad among the early Mars Hill scene.  People were encouraged to invest in real estate.  The idea was that a couple would buy a home, maybe a home they couldn't technically afford if it was all up to them and their credit, but to ameliorate this by community living and "life together".  What that meant in practice was people would rent out rooms and space to other people within the church so that a community living set up was in place.  Eventually the home owners might have a baby or two or the tenant might get married and the community living set up might change.  Maybe somebody would have to move out or a new couple would emerge and the housing situation would adjust. 

The Driscoll house that was on Montlake, for instance, ended up being a rental space taken up by anywhere between six to eight people at a time in the latter part of the last decade.

For those who can dig up the old fundraising film God's Work, Our Witness (audio and SD video (we hope))and cross reference it to the history of real estate acquisitions and Mark Driscoll's own narrative it as a Mars Hill & Mark Driscoll's Real Estate story.  The real estate situation Mark Driscoll had at the start of this century is inextricably bound up in the social and economic context within which he decided to take up the pen name William Wallace II and write "Pussified Nation".

Confessions of a Reformission RevMark Driscoll, Zondervan 2006
ISBN-13: 978-0-310-27016-4

page 119
[this season begins in early 1999]
I had worked myself to near burnout and was still the only paid pastor on staff although there was enough work for ten people.

[remember that at this point Mike Gunn and Lief Moi still had full-time jobs, Driscoll's work was apparently part-time and he had a stipend from the advisory board and supplemented his income in other ways]

page 120
A friend in the church kindly allowed me to move into a large home he owned on a lease-to-own deal because I was too broke to qualify for anything but an outhouse. The seventy-year-old house had over three thousand square feet, seven bedrooms on three floors, and needed a ton of work because it had been neglected for many years as a rental home for college students. Grace and I and our daughter Ashley, three male renters who helped cover the mortgage, my study, and the church office all moved into the home. [emphasis added] This put me on the job, literally, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, as the boundary between home and church was erased.

We ran the church out of my house for nearly two years, including leadership meetings and Bible studies for various groups on almost every night of the week. It was not uncommon to have over seventy people a week in our home. Grace got sucked right back into the church mess. She was a great host to our guests. But I started growing bitter toward her because I was again feeling neglected.

I began working seven days a week, trying to save the church from imminent death. I had decided to go for broke and accepted that I would either save the church and provide for my family or probably die of a heart attack. I lived on caffeine and adrenaline for the better part of two years, ate terribly ,and put on nearly forty pounds. 

Then from God's Work, Our Witness, linked to above:

about 27:33
The Driscolls’ Basement
Once we got kicked out of that building, literally everything moved back into our house. So offices in our house across from our bedroom, interns in the basement.

Pastor Matt: Poor Grace. Like, it was so ghetto down there because, I mean, you know bachelors. There’s like three guys living down there, and the dishes would just stack up, stack up. I remember they’d start stinking real bad. And every couple of weeks, like, we’d see the dishes done. I’d come home from work, and I’d say, “Hey, man, did you do the dishes? Thanks.” He was like, “Nah, I think Grace did them again.”

Grace: We shared laundry facilities and so, yeah, I just ended up cleaning half the time, because it was—I couldn’t even stay down there to do laundry. It was so disgusting.

Pastor Matt: Sorry, sorry, Grace. [emphasis added]

We had just picked up Pastor Tim in Albuquerque, New Mexico, around that time and he had never played an electric guitar. He’d never sung in a band. He’d never written a song, and he couldn’t sing, man. When he sang, it actually sounded like he got captured by Al-Qaeda. So we had to pay for vocal lessons and go buy him an electric guitar.

Pastor Tim: [The kind of worshipers that he is seeking are those that will worship in spirit and truth, and that is a thought that has changed every aspect of how I think.] When I came to Mars Hill, I had never really been in a band. I played a lot of acoustic guitar with hand drums, but I hadn’t really been in a band. I hadn’t ever really written a song, and I’d never owned an electric guitar—a lot of acoustic, a lot of flannel, a lot of sandals.

Tim and his wife moved out from Missouri to live in my basement and go work Joe jobs and give it a shot because we met him for twenty minutes at a conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Pastor Tim: Because you weren’t at that conference.

Beth: No, no, it was just him.

Pastor Tim: You hadn’t met these people. You hadn’t read these things. I just came home from New Mexico from this conference and said, “Hey, what if we moved to Seattle now?”

Beth: That was a little harder sell for me. We had to pray about that for a while.

Pastor Tim: Yeah, because we didn’t know anybody here.

Beth: No, no.

Pastor Tim: So in August of 1999, we rolled into the Driscoll family’s driveway. It was the second time I’d ever seen Pastor Mark. We talked on the phone a time or two and exchanged a couple of e-mails. I think we both met Grace here in this basement while she was doing the laundry.
Beth: We had a dining table right here and some chairs, and there was a futon right here. It was a little nicer.

Pastor Tim: The bathroom was nice, right?

Beth: Oh, yeah. I’m not going to—I’m not sharing that part.

Jeff: Matt lived in the basement, and I was over there a lot, and I did silk screening. I cleaned off my screens in his shower downstairs and totally stained it. I think that was permanent. And so I wrecked his basement.

Beth: That’s the first thing I cleaned. I’ll just say that. It was okay for a period of time. We knew it wasn’t forever, so—

Pastor Tim: Years later, I would ask Mark, I asked him, “Why in the world did you do that? Because I’m pretty sure you haven’t just taken anybody else in, and I’m not sure I would exactly the same way, either.” And he said that he had a dream that God told him that I was moving here, and we were supposed to work together. I had no idea what was in store, but apparently God did.
Driscoll's history of telling guys he dreamed about them in connection to recruiting them into leadership roles at Mars Hill has been examined at moderate length elsewhere. 

Eventually the Driscolls moved out of that house and into another house, while returning the Montlake property as a rental which would house renters until the Driscolls put the house on the market some time around roughly 2009, maybe?  The house didn't ultimately sell until later.

It would require people who invested in the real estate scene in the Puget Sound area coming forward to share their stories to share more detail but it was relatively commonplace within Mars Hill for people to try a hand at the landlord thing.  Not everyone was cut out for it and even those who were cut out for it could find it was a hassle at times.  But the price of housing in Seattle has long been a point of vexation for those of us who live here. 

The gist of the housing scene as applicable to what was once Mars Hill, from my admittedly limited perspective, was that people were encouraged to invest in real estate and rent out to as many fellow church attenders and members as they could to consolidate a presence in the city.  This happened with the acquisition of church campus sites but it also happened in residential areas, though the extent to which this happened isn't something I'm in a position to really investigate.  Former MH real estate people could address that, perhaps.

Driscoll's own account was that he was able to get real estate in the city because someone was willing to give him a lease to own deal that was not a reflection of what his credit history would have warranted.  If the received narrative of the subprime borrower were applicable then Driscoll would have been one of those sorts of not-so-safe bets.  But if the counter-narrative were applied, the one that says that speculative house-flipping from the middle class did more to catalyze the housing bubble then that might be an angle for potential historians of the Mars Hill scene to explore.  Not that this seems practical at the moment since a roster of Mars Hill members over its whole life that could be cross-referenced to real estate transactions within King County and outlying counties would be ... hard to assemble. 

What was presented as creating a counter-culture within Mars Hill by leaders like Mark Driscoll or Jamie Munson--this acquiring real estate and renting to others and perhaps also flipping the real estate to turn a profit now and then--was handed down as a way to not be like the surrounding city.  Well, "maybe" that was the case in King County but it's hard not to have doubts about that.  The real estate practices of people who bought homes in the King County area during the Mars Hill era on the part of Mars Hill attenders, members and leaders may not only not have been counter-cultural, it might have turned out to be the embodiment of the zeitgeist of the time.

over at Quartz Gwynn Guilford has a piece about how throughout the history of Europe women rulers were more likely to be war-wagers than men

One of the responses to a proposed remake of Lord of the Flies with an all female cast was to proclaim that the plot of Lord of the Flies was only conceivable with an all male cast because with women it couldn't happen.  Clearly the gender essentialism of such a reply would be unexamined but the unexamined nature of such essentialist assumptions is probably going to continue regardless of any counterevidence.  We could think of any number of examples from the last half century to suggest that having women in major political roles may or may not reduce conflict.  Was Margaret Thatcher a peacenik?  For that matter could Hillary Clinton be said to have an anti-war streak? 

For that matter, in a piece by Gwynn Guilford, there's some discussion of what some authors observe as a trend in which Europe's queens were more likely than kings to take up military campaigns.

Nowadays Isabella is less known for her conquests than for having paid Christopher Columbus to sail the oceans—maybe because we don’t often think of queens as warmongers.
But apparently, they were. In fact, between 1480 and 1913, Europe’s queens were 27% more likely than its kings to wage war, according to a National Bureau of Economics working paper (paywall). And like Isabella, queens were also more likely to amass new territory during their reigns, found the paper’s authors, economists Oeindrila Dube and S.P. Harish.

But why? A lot of it comes down to the queenly management style—and how radically it differed from that of kings.

The first clue comes from the fact that, of all European sovereigns, married queens were the most bellicose, launching more wars than unmarried queens, and kings of all types. This might be because, thanks to gender norms, women rulers tended to benefit more from marriage alliances than kings. Married queens were likelier than kings to wage war alongside allies, often their spouses’ nations. And queens frequently roped their husbands into helping rule—something that kings hardly ever did with their wives.

Even Marston, who made the character Wonder Woman, could have taken some time to observe that his essentialist view that women were better than men in leadership was not necessarily a given.  It isn't really clear to me that either men or women are necessarily better at leadership.  Chalking things up to a patriarchy cooks the premise into the conclusion.  I've been skeptical about the idea that a patriarchal society is the main or only thing that leads to extended militarism.  It may play a role and it may have even played a role across much of global human history, for that matter.  But the idea that if women ran the world there would be less war is so idealistic I think it's dangerous to take such an idea seriously even if we assume for the moment that a matricentic society is going to happen, which seems ... unlikely.  There's no particularly good reason for me to believe that if Clinton had won we'd be further away from armed conflict now than we are under a Trump administration.  That doesn't seem to be how military-industrial societies work.    Had Clinton won we might have already had a military action within the first 100 days. 

Friday, September 01, 2017

almost done reading John Borstlap's The Classical Revolution (reissued)

and boy do I have thoughts about the book.  I started reading stuff from the Future Symphony Institute because it's cropped up in the ArtsJournal feed and a friend asked if I'd heard of it.  It's associated with Andrew Ballo and Roger Scruton and while it's a technically non-political institute thing on paper its contributors are so well-known as conservatives there's hardly any mistaking Roger Scruton for, say, a Marxist or even a Clintonian liberal.  When contributors to FSI show up in The Imaginative Conservative there's not a ton of room for doubt.

Which is fine, more or less, inasmuch as I've said I regard myself as a moderate conservative on politics and theology.  My stance could be described as a possibly uneasy mixture of Edmund Burke, Jacques Ellul, Roger Williams with stuff from Emil Brunner in there, maybe, and a recovering early fan of Francis Schaeffer who's incubating a long-form criticism of the guy's art criticism.

That said, John Borstlap's book comes off as an extended candidate for a future entry in some kind of Slonimsky's Lexicon of Musical Invective.

I might see about writing more about the book in the next few days or later this month.  It's such a Euro-centric book in its grudges it's kind of not even a useful read for an American but it's interesting for what it fails to do, make any kind of case that there is anything close to a "classical revolution" that would fit the title.  The new edition is a new edition, so while it says it's an expanded and revised edition I'm not in a position to know what was revised beyond an apparently expanded list of composers Borstlap believes merit attention.  Some of those names are kind of familiar to me.

But my reservation about the Future Symphony Institute isn't about the preservation and continuation of the traditions of Western concert music as a whole.  I'm all for that!  It's the "Symphony" part of FSI that I'm not behind and that's simply because though I love symphonic music I'm a guitarist.   So besides Borstlap's obsessively Euro-centric perspective, which is understandable because he's Dutch, I'm getting this impression that he knows what he's getting at but he's not always coming across like he's got a clear or coherent argument.

He has an assertion, one he repeats over and over, that sonic art is not music.  He just keeps saying it and sometimes he says it's because sonic art rejects tonality but he's vague on what exactly he means by tonality.  He blames Schoenberg for choosing a wrong path and for his disciples for choosing more of the wrong path but there's something that's stuck with me all through this book.  It's one thing to declare that sonic art is not music and it's another thing to reverse the polemic and explain why music can't possibly be sonic art or, to refine the counter-case a bit, explain what it is about music that makes it "more" than merely sonic art. 

The thing is, even if I generously guess that Borstlap wants to make a case for how and why sonic art isn't music the arguments for why that would be so never get made by Borstlap in the entire book.  Since Borstlap himself is a composer it seems less excusable that he couldn't make his case for why sonic art isn't music even though the very nature of music is that it is a sonic art.  Without vibrating air there can be no music, after all. 

The most generous reading I can come up with for what Borstlap has failed to do is articulate that a distinction between traditional musical art and sonic art is what Leonard B Meyer described as the syntactics of music.  To say that music follows syntactic developmental procedures is not to say that music is necessarily "tonal" in the European common practice sense of the word "tonal", whether functional harmony or the major/minor key system or modality.  The proliferation of music using microtonality and just intonation in the United States makes such a broad assumption untenable, whether or not you like microtonal or just intonation music (I love some of it). 

This gets to what seems most embarrassing about Borstlap's polemic, he's arguing against Cage and Schoenberg.  Arguments against the long-term viability of twelve-tone music and total serialism were made more cogently and persuasively forty and fifty years ago by American writers such as Leonard B. Meyer, George Rochberg and Ben Johnston; all of them made respectfully dissenting arguments against the viability of atonality where Borstlap has simply repetitively asserted that atonality is a dead end fifty years too late.  But then Borstlap's polemics brim with resentments about the European art subsidization regimes, which means that even though he makes no particularly compelling or persuasive arguments that a musician and composer in America could possibly take seriously, Borstlap is clearly arguing about European civilization being in the balance.  Whether or not European civilization as Borstlap knows it manages to survive is of interest but is a secondary or tertiary concern to me. 

But as I was alluding earlier, compiling the Meyer, Rochberg and Johnston cases against atonality working in the long run will take some time. 

Another thing that will take time is demonstrating that Borstlap's continual conflation of atonality and its advocates as being materialist has been debunked by Richard Taruskin and others--it turns out that the early atonalists were not only not materialists, a lot of them had interests in the occult.  If people getting into Balzac and theosophy were really atheists and materialists then that's news to me.  Taruskin has argued that the second generation of atonalists reduced atonality to materialistic secularism and so doing bled out the lifeblood that animated early atonalist composing, the quest for a transcendentalist double-gendered bursting of the bonds of conventional material and mortal existence. 

But that sort of thing takes time, too.  :) 

It seems that Borstlap's polemics against Adorno had more of a plae in the book the first time around.  I've got my own issues with Adorno because of his brutal dismissal of jazz and his dismissal of Stravinsky, but I don't get the sense that Borstlap can read Adorno as anyone but an advocate of music Borstlap doesn't like and as some generic evil cultural Marxist.  For FSI contributors to condemn cultural Marxism while praising the USSR for having preserved the traditions of tonality seems like an incoherent and incompetent double bind.  Yeah, I love a lot of Soviet era musicmyself but this idea that atonality=advocacy of some kind of cultural Marxism is just bad historiography.  Even Shostakovich employed twelve-tone rows in his later string quartets. 

But there's stuff to consider.  I do think that Borstlap's book, as badly argued as it is, deserves a careful and considered set of counter-arguments and I think that within American music far more compelling arguments have been made as of half a century ago than what Borstlap never even gets around to doing in his book. 

Thursday, August 31, 2017

over at Mere Orthodoxy Samuel D James writes about Alan Jacobs' book How to Think as the book for our moment ...

The book is available for pre-order but in spite of having read a couple of things by Alan Jacobs in the last few years I am way, way more likely to pre-order Samurai Jack season 5 and the anime Your Name than a book called How to Think.  It can at least be said of conservatives that they will make no bones at about telling you how you should think about anything and everything.  Not every liberal or leftist is even half as comfortable telling you explicitly how you should think as method or how you should think as conclusion as a conservative, by and large.  In that sense, seeing as this year is the 20th anniversary of South Park, that can go some way to explain why the creators of South Park have said they hate conservatives but they really hate liberals. In a phrase, the liberal of the last thirty years is less likely to be entirely aware of their moralizing sanctimony because they literally cannot imagine why anyone should think differently than they do.  Conservatives, in some sense aware that they don't dominate the priestcraft of contemporary entertainment or academia and aware of it all the time, are less apt to get the impression that everyone already thinks as they do because they wish everyone did.

I know there's advance copies and galley proofs and stuff but the prospect of reading a review of a book that you to pre-order still feels a little weird.  It's hard not to think of the book publishing career of Mark Driscoll since this blog is what it is. 

James was blogging recently about the experience of going tweet-less.  As someone who regards Twitters are mostly a complete waste of time I try to understand as best I can that there are people who use it, find it immensely helpful, and have used it to get information out and engage in some kind of public discourse.  I don't get why they think that's great or necessary but I try to be easy-going about it.  Marketing and propaganda are inextricably part of contemporary experience.  I prefer to approach mass media by way of blogging.  It's easier to blog without a strong sense of urgency but with a developed sense of necessity.  Long time readers, I trust, will understand how and why I take that view.  It's more important to carefully document what I think about specific things than to embrace the fastest hot take possible.  Documenting the rise and fall of a mega-church here in Puget Sound benefited from other people using Twitter, however!  Although at times it's tempting to peruse the Justin Dean book on how good PR can save your church Mars Hill's use of mass media was precisely how this blog was able to so exhaustively document in-process the implosion of what used to be known as Mars Hill Church. 

I've made it clear over the years that I was unimpressed, no, I was negatively impressed with Samuel D. James pious bromides written against watchblogging.  If his lament had been that far too little of what passes itself as watchdog blogging has journalistic or historical rigor then I'd say "Amen", and I've labored over the years to ensure that when this blog has been about church history in Puget Sound it is as accurate and careful as humanly possible.  But it was hard to shake the impression, particularly when James slathered a portrait of Mark, Grace and the Driscoll kids on a blog post about how people should stop picking on Mark Driscoll that this was just an indignant stunt.  Maybe pastors' kids feel obliged to go to bat for each other regardless of questions as to how and why the author of this sort of argument against any First Amendment speech protection for "adult entertainment" should have ever become a pastor to begin with. Consult pages 4 and 5 to get a clearer sense of what Mark Driscoll's idea of working as a professional journalist in college seems to have looked like.

Now, to be fair, there's pretty much no way Samuel D James could have possibly known Mark Driscoll wrote that sort of editorial in college after claiming to have had a conversion experience.  It's not that there's necessarily a reason to just assume Mark Driscoll didn't have some kind of conversion experience, but precisely what Jesus he was converted to has been open to debate over the last twenty years.  And since in the last seven years Driscoll has turned toward regarding men such as T. D. Jakes as friends and publicly claimed he apologized to Joel Osteen for things he said about Osteen a decade ago as of this year, it doesn't seem like James should have selected Mark Driscoll, of all possible self-ordained pastors in America, as the person to go to bat for in saying to not do watchblogs. 

The last piece I recall by Alan Jacobs was about Christian intellectuals and that was an interesting read.  I was also struck by Alastair Roberts' observation at a Mere Fidelity podcast that those Christian intellectuals weren't any kind of evangelical but members of mainline denominations.  Whether or not Mere Orthodoxy can become a kind of conservative Protestant equivalent of First Things remains to be seen, let alone a replacement for the loss of Books & Culture.   What I've written in comments discussions here at my blog as my concern, still being someone who self-identifies as evangelical and also Reformed, is that evangelicals have spent too much time lamenting the loss of an intellectual prestige we have never actually had; worse, too many of us who are evangelicals with intellectual interests have tended to squander our intellectual capital tackling problems that have little discernible relevance to anyone outside our coterie of thought leaders. 

I'm more apt to imagine that The Calvinist International, by being so remorselessly specialist, could get in the zone of what Mere Orthodoxy might hope to achieve but probably can't because, in the end, Mere O keeps relentlessly returning to sex and politics and politics as sex and sex as politics and the usual suspects for social conservatives.  When the cultural mandate is reduced to the necessity of simply making those babies who seem to be assumed to be fulfilling the purpose of the cultural mandate simply by having been brought forth from culture warrior wombs.  There's a jokey axiom in entertainment that you never win the Emmy by going for the Emmy and with that axiom in mind, evangelicalism in Anglo-American contexts is always going for the Emmy and always telling you in the most emphatic ways possible that they are going for the Emmy. 

And yet, as I've dryly joked earlier this month, so much of the Christian cultural and intellectual heritage of the West that evangelicals want to have play a more robust role in public life was formulated by a bunch of guys who took oaths to never get laid.  I am in many respects a stick in the mud but after decades of seeing how social conservatives tend to approach things within American Christianity it seems like they have to figure out whether they're for everybody banging in straight matrimony and making babies or whether the effort to tackle intellectual and cultural issues that go beyond that obsession can actually be taken up. 

Even if everybody that Samuel D James wants to read Alan Jacobs' books goes out and reads it and learns how to think I wonder if the problem won't still be that the sorts of people most eager to read and recommend such a book in the United States are fixated on not just how you should think and what you should think but, along the way, what you should think about.   The gatekeeper castes of the proverbial liberal and conservative mainstreams and the left and right seem to have some anxiety about influence.  The power of the influence in each bubble is not in doubt.  It just seems as though the power of the bubble is too strong in each group. 

I'm at a point now where if somebody gave me a book published by Thomas Nelson my first instinct would be to burn it.  Ever since Mark Driscoll's plagiarism controversy began to be reported as "alleged" in Christian publishing and journalism it's been a little bit tougher to take popular level Christian publishing (whether left, right, or center) seriously. 

Atlantic Monthly--The Myth of American Universities as Inequality Fighters [a captain obvious moment but ... ]

No one will ever actually solve the problem of lasting poverty. The gap between the poor and rich might be reducible in some fashion in some ways but there will always be poor people.  If anything it can seem as though the question at hand won't even end up being whether or not poverty can be eliminated but, instead, whose poverty can be considered sufficiently "deserved" that the people with access to money, education, power, prestige and privilege can regard it as more or less just that the ones who don't have those things will never deserve those things by dint of some trait.

For many that trait in the contemporary West that you need to have to in many senses not "deserve" to be poor is education, and education of a liberal arts kind.  Well ... we've blogged a little bit about how that isn't necessarily a compelling or convincing assertion.  But there's this article recently in the Atlantic that touches on a few axioms that are considered by some to be myths about universities in the US.  The more prestigious the school the less likely it is to do anything other than retrench socio-economic inequalities.  We'll quote extensively while trying to stick to highlights:

... In a fascinating new paper published this summer, five economists, Raj Chetty, John Friedman, Emmanuel Saez, Nicholas Turner, and Danny Yagan, call into question higher education’s role in promoting upward mobility. The centerpiece of the paper is “mobility report cards” for each college in America. The researchers considered 30 million students between 1999 and 2014 and compared their parents’ incomes to their own post-college earnings, by school. With this data, they could see exactly which colleges helped the most students rise from the bottom of the earnings ladder to the top.

They found that America’s top universities are largely closed to the poor, merely helping well-off students remain well-off. The best schools for helping low-income students become high-income graduates are accepting fewer and fewer kids from poor families.
This study doesn’t just challenge one big myth about American universities and poor students. It combats several popular myths among both liberals and conservatives. Let’s go through three.
Myth #1: America’s most prestigious universities are great engines of upward mobility.
The most important takeaway from the paper is simple, and sad: The colleges that are most able to launch people to the very top of the American economic system often are the least accessible to low-income students.
Myth #2: Low-income students, who are more likely to be minorities, can’t succeed at selective colleges.
If the first myth is a liberal fantasy, the second is a conservative fallacy. For example, in oral arguments during the affirmative-action case Fisher v. University of Texas, former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said, “It does not benefit African­ Americans to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less­ advanced school, a slower­-track school where they do well.”
Scalia was referring here to “mismatch theory,” a conservative critique of affirmative action, which says that minority students shouldn’t get preferential treatment at colleges, because they’ll just fail. Similar critiques have been made of affirmative action programs that seek both ethnic and economic diversity.
But the “mismatch theory” doesn’t match the data. “Students from low-income families are not over-placed (or ‘mismatched’) at selective colleges,” the economists conclude in this paper. Instead the results show that children from low- and high-income families who attend the same college have “very similar earnings outcomes.”
Myth #3: Selective schools are admitting more low-income students.
Full confession: This is a story that I absolutely believed. After all, the number of students from low-income families attending college has soared this century. Spending on Pell Grants for low-income students nearly tripled between 2001 and 2011.
But the boom in Pell Grants appears to have little to do with better access to college among the very poor. Congress raised the income-eligibility threshold for Pell between 2000 and 2011, which automatically increased the number of students who qualified. Then, when household incomes collapsed after 2007, more families suddenly qualified under the new threshold. “Together, these changes fully account for the observed increase in Pell shares,” the economists write.
At the Ivies and their ilk, there has been almost no overall growth in students whose families are in the bottom 20 percent. The same is true for four-year colleges, as a group. Practically the entire growth in low-income students has happened at for-profit colleges, where graduates have the worst outcomes. ...
What's been interesting is how The Atlantic has run a few pieces this year such as one about how men are increasingly the new minority at colleges in the United States.  In a cultural moment where the snark of people on the internet can assert that remaking Lord of the Flies with women couldn't even happen because that plot could never happen with women makes it seem as though we've got a group of people able and willing to believe in a gender essentialism that is a photo-negative of what has been called the patriarchy--there's no reason to believe a matriarchy or a patriarchy will be, on balance, be better than its presumed essentialist opposite.  Though he's not writing so much online these days Fredrik Deboer has written in the past about his belief that higher education is in danger of getting even more massively defunded than some thing has already been taking placeThat education itself could be a bubble that is going to burst has come up as a topic for writing.
It's hardly a surprise that myths held by liberals and conservatives within the United States about our educational culture might turn out to be wrong.  I have my doubts the problems can be easily fixed, both because the propensity of liberals and conservatives to scapegoat each other makes it unlikely that either side will think outside their respective intellectual boxes, and also because for those who are educated the tendency to debate the future of higher education on the assumption that there couldn't possibly be anything wrong with it as we who have received it received it is easy to do even when we think we're not doing that. 
The more prestigious and private the college, the gist of the article seems to be saying, the more that educational institution entrenches rather than breaks down inequality. 
If there were an education bubble comparable to the housing bubble then the only guess I have, such as it is, is that the state will probably handle that education bubble in a way roughly comparable to the way it handled the banking and real estate crisis of 2008. 

ribbonfarm piece on "The Lonely Atoms", discusses young males who lack skills and don't even try to assimilate into the mainstream ... a 17 years-after-Driscoll survey but with cleaner language

The idea behind "Pussified Nation" was a fairly pedestrian one, decades old within evangelical and neo-Calvinist circles but sometimes other authors with other angles can arrive at an idea as though it is new, for them.  Rosin's The End of Men comes to mind but there are other, more recent examples.
But making sense of the Lonely Atomic Age requires more than numbers and trends. It means getting comfortable with an account that does not pretend to be an explanation. Naming the problem demographic is part of how we make the problem legible. Ian Hacking calls this “dynamic nominalism” in his essay “Making People Up.” The philosopher sees “our classifications and our classes conspire to emerge hand in hand, each egging the other on.” This is not to question that there is such a type as “lower-skill American males who live with their parents or a close relative, don’t work, aren’t in school, and play lots of videogames.” These individuals exist. But the individual identity of a person of this class is never explored.

Instead they are treated as fungible crumbs of the demographic itself. Their individual fates don’t matter; the salient point is what their collective inaction might signify for the rest of us. [emphasis added] The category itself, the boxes checked to make someone a specimen, is something new, and it “conspires to emerge hand in hand” with the narrative of crisis.

Ha!  No, this isn't a new thing at all!  Maybe it's new to imagine young white 20-something males who don't bother to assimilate into the mainstream to begin with rather than struggling for a while and rejecting the mainstream as something vaguely new, but categorizing people as nothing more or less than demographic symbolism has been around for as long as there have been people. 

The category and the narrative arrived in the wake of a financial meltdown, and more generally, in a time of increasing technological disruption. This disruption matters in the story of the Lonely Atoms.
The category and the narrative arrived in the wake of a financial meltdown, and more generally, in a time of increasing technological disruption. This disruption matters in the story of the Lonely Atoms.
Technology reduces demand for unskilled labor by making such workers expendable or unnecessary. An industrial economy becomes an information-age economy, and labor-intensive businesses become capital-intensive businesses keen to increase production and slash costs. It’s not hard to see how younger lower-skilled workers wind up under the boot of technological advancement.

What this long-form piece reminded me of is how this kind of thought has been characteristic of evangelicals, social conservatives and particularly neo-Calvinist/new Calvinist sorts for decades.  Doug Wilson's whole shtick is in some sense dependent on this kind of analysis.  Mark Driscoll took a number of elements from that shtick, pumped them full of steroids and transformed that into what some would eventually read as "Pussified Nation".  The basic shtick is still, actually, pretty much the same with Driscoll even now.  He's couching it more in a desire to be a father figure and to address "father wounds" but the basic belief that young guys aren't doing enough to engage in the economic and social activities to prove they have reached and passed the goals that constitute the checklist of functional adulthood in post-war American life. 

The worry that guys were just staying home and looking at porn and watching video games has been going on in Christian subcultures for decades.  Not everyone is sure that the economy is as recovered from the Great Recession as has been said. Not everyone is sure that more and more people getting advanced degrees is really an indicator of upward social or economic mobility as has been taken for granted in the past.   There's a recent article on that topic but that constitutes a separate post.  Meanwhile, it's interesting how there are times when writers not in the Christian popular writing scenes touch on the kinds of crises that are ever-present to Christian writers in the Anglo-American context. 

Something that just came to mind is that while blogs such as Mere Orthodoxy stake out a position of opposition to gay marriage on the one hand and lament the loss of rites of passage into adulthood the paradox seems to be that the aim is to deny, basically, that gays should have access (though some, to say the least) seek to fulfill those socio-economic milestones of functional adulthood that have traditionally been the domain of straight people; on the other hand, for decades now, evangelicals and social conservatives have been lamenting how fewer and fewer straight people voluntarily seek out these checklist points of the transition into socially recognized adulthood in the United States.  The crisis for social conservatives seems to be that gays are actively pursuing what straights are pursuing less and less and handling more disastrously apart from the upper crust strata of white society ... maybe. 

But in a way ... couldn't we ask whether or not in both cases the metaphorical boner is the guiding light in both cases?  Sometimes it seems like it.  At one level the market doesn't care who's getting married as long as whoever is getting married goes on to buy real estate and participate in as well as contribute to the market.  In that sense socially conservative Christians may need to figure out whether they're really for freedom of the market or for what they regard as necessary standards of ethical purity.  For those on the liberal or left side (and I don't regard these as really being the same at all at several levels) the question of whether gay marriage is even a net benefit if deregulated globalist capitalism is possibly not the greatest thing ever may make any potential celebration of gay marriage profoundly subordinated to questions of whether the global ecosphere would, say, benefit from yet more Americans getting live the consumeristic lifestyle of Americans; a redistributive welfare state that is powered by fossil fuel economics can still crash and burn in the long run. 

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Terry Teachout at TNR on biographies about Hemingway and Fitzgerald and on how Hemingway looks more and more like a great influence who was not a great author

Just so we're clear and you can take offense if needed, let me present a haiku I just wrote

Life is too precious
(and too short) to waste it by
reading Hemingway

There, with that warning up front to you that I have never in my life had any use at all for Ernest Hemingway's writing ... :

The trouble with Hemingway, seen from the privileged vantage point of hindsight, is that he looks increasingly like a great influence but not a great author in his own right. No 20th-century writer would leave a deeper mark on his contemporaries [emphasis added], and as late as 1948, Evelyn Waugh, no respecter of reputations, unhesitatingly described him in print as “one of the most original and powerful of living writers.” Yet all but the very finest of his short stories now sound mannered and artificial, while the novels come off as little more than sustained exercises in mirror-gazing and pose-striking. I would like to like him more than I do, but the truth is that I find him almost unreadable, and my chronic distaste for his work is more than merely an allergy.
What is it about Hemingway that so many of today’s readers find so off-putting? The fact that he proved to be so imitable is a big part of the problem, and it didn’t help that most of the imitation was popularization. Among other things, the author of “The Killers” inadvertently invented the detective story, not to mention film noir, and inspired a generation of hack writers, all of them men, who longingly mistook his self-constructed legend for reality. [emphasis added] Herein lies the real strength of Dearborn’s book, which is that she has, as she puts it, “no investment in the Hemingway legend. . . . I cannot see what the legend has to offer to a female reader.” All she cares about is how a hack reporter came to write such exquisitely wrought stories as “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” and “Hills Like White Elephants” and, in time, to blow his brains out, and she tells that story clearly, intelligently, and with a realistic but disillusioned sense of admiration for so sadly flawed a man and writer. Hemingway, she says,
seemed to find it difficult to give and receive love, to be a faithful friend, and, perhaps most tragically, to tell the truth, even to himself. By the end of World War II, and while still in his forties, he had done himself out of many of the rewards of the good life: He had three failed marriages behind him, had few good friends, was not writing well, and had surrounded himself with flunkies and sycophants. . . . Even at his peak, sentimentality and a garrulous streak sometimes crept into his writing.
Though being a man myself I never had the slightest use for either the literature or the legend of Hemingway.  I suppose Emma Woodhouse had the line for this, that half of us take pleasure in things the other half can't understand.  But then one of my grandest literary summers had me reading through The Brothers Karamazov, Kafka's The Metamorphosis and then wrapping up the summer reading Conrad's Heart of Darkness between midnight and 6am. I was also binging on the music of Scott Joplin and Duke Ellington.  Whereas I admit that when I read The Great Gatsby I enjoyed that.  In a way I suppose my impression in my reading life is that ultimately everybody ends up being a moralist and a scold and that those who loathe moralistic scolds do so not because they are not themselves capable of being moralistic scolds, the complaint is what flavor of moralism the hater of scolds is being scolded about, to be deliberately sloppy about it. 

and Teachout moves along to F. Scott.
At the same time, there was far more to him than his craftsmanship. Brown is squarely on the mark when he says that Fitzgerald’s work embodies “the disquieting notion that we have drifted far from our inheritance as the children of pioneers to fashion a culture that teaches its young to love too much the privileges and protections of wealth.” That is why it retains its immediacy: If anything, we have drifted farther still in the same disorienting direction, and Fitzgerald, like so many moralists, knew that he was himself exemplary of the flaws of the culture whose frivolity he chronicled and indicted. This knowledge is the source of the gravity that heightens the force of his best work, whose lightness of touch cannot conceal its ultimate seriousness, a seriousness that makes the Hemingway of The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms look like a mere merchant of self-pity by comparison. Yet he remained a romantic to the last, as well as a true believer in the promise of the Midwest that spawned him and that he regarded to the end of his life as “the warm center of the world.”
The Midwest doesn't seem like a warm center of the world but then I'm a native Pacific Northwesterner.  It's wonderful here, temperate and beautiful brimming with greenery ... although there's been plenty of racists here and mountains have this history of blowing up on us.

Merve Emre at Boston Review discusses collections of personal essays; the online personal narrative peak; and two paths for the personal essay

Emre covers a number of books in the piece I'm about to link to. 

I've seen the book mentioned a couple of times at Mockingbird and no sentences excerpted from the book could convince me to actually read the book. I can get behind "lyrical" but while I'm sure that those who have tried reading this blog would not regard the posts as wonderfully meandering the aim here isn't to meander.  For instance, "If earning a fresh perspective on the past and growing into something new are the goals of the personal essay, Durga Chew-Bose achieves them both with grace in Too Much and Not the Mood. " ... I don't think the goals of a personal essay are earning a fresh perspective on the past and growing into something new.  Those may be side effects of writing some personal essays ... .

Emre, as we'll see, was not charmed by the book. There's a bit of a mood-setting wind-up but it's not too long before:

But what makes “Heart Museum” so dispiriting is not the quality of Chew-Bose’s prose. Rather, it is how the essay not only celebrates its aesthetic failings, but also insists that these failings testify to the author’s success as a sensitive ethical thinker. If the prose is clunky, if the posturing is overindulgent, if the plot is lost and never found, then, Chew-Bose would have us believe, we have no recourse as readers but to grant how the formlessness of her writing—she would call it the “breathlessness” or perhaps the “messiness” of it—forces us to reflect on timeless quandaries about life and art. [emphasis added] Is the writer a reliable witness to the past? Can she ever truly know the human beings she writes about? Can she ever truly know herself? Chew-Bose’s answer to all these questions is “I guess? Sort of.” “Is there anything better, more truthful and sublime than what cannot be communicated?” she concludes in “Heart Museum.” “The marvelous, hard-to-spell-out convenience of what’s indefinite.” These are pretty phrases that mean nothing and teach nothing. Their only purpose is to “clinch” (to echo Chew-Bose) the author’s status as a beacon of complex selfhood. But for whose benefit?

The scope and focus of the first-person industrial complex is something I've blogged about a little bit in the past but this essay is interesting for pointing out that we have too short a perspective on just how ancient the first-person narrative essay is and that the internet saturation of these personal narrative essays may trick us into thinking the vintage of this genre is younger than it is.  So, let's get back to Emre:

In a sense, there is nothing unique about the pose Too Much and Not the Mood strikes—and this is the real problem. For a certain breed of personal essayist at work today, there exists a necessary and desirable trade-off between aesthetic clarity and moral complexity; a bargain premised on the depressing notion that words are always insufficient to the task at hand and so we may as well stop trying to choose the clearest or most precise ones. The adjective that best captures the conditions of this bargain is messy. [emphasis added] Messy feelings, messy reality, messy relationships, the messy unfiltered stuff of life; the personal essayist evacuates all in one, big messy outpouring of repurposed clich├ęs about love and life and pain and joy and men and women and whatever other themes readers of these essayists are, by now, primed to receive as universal human concerns. “Style is character,” Joan Didion proclaimed in her 1979 essay collection The White Album. However imprecise this statement of equivalence may be, one suspects that it has been thoroughly internalized by personal essayists today who elide aesthetic judgments—judgments about the formal or stylistic features of prose—with ethical and subjective ones that assess the character of the human being who would produce such prose.

The eager transposition of the aesthetic into the ethical is not new; nor is criticism of the personal essay’s manipulation of its readers (its intimate “grossness,” Ralph Waldo Emerson once sniffed). The form has always grappled with the many valences of the term “personal” and the kinds of authorial projections it allows. Taking an unapologetically snobbish tone in her 1905 essay “The Decay of Essay Writing,” Virginia Woolf lamented how the nineteenth-century democratization of literacy had flooded the literary marketplace with personal essays. A new class of writers, blinkered by the “amazing and unclothed egoism” that came from asserting one’s importance through reading and writing, thought nothing of sacrificing “their beliefs to the turn of a phrase or the glitter of paradox,” Woolf complained. Theirs was a mass demonstration of newly acquired cultural capital over and above any aesthetic or political purpose they may have had for putting pen to paper in the first place. “You need know nothing of music, art, or literature to have a certain interest in their productions, and the great burden of modern criticism is simply the expression of such individual likes and dislikes—the amiable garrulity of the tea-table—cast in the form of the essay,” Woolf wrote, scolding those middle-class writers who would dare leave their grubby prints on the windowpane of good prose. If one can set aside her disdain, there is a larger point: too many people writing have nothing interesting to say and no interesting way in which to say it.

If, in the early twentieth century, the “I” of the personal essay bespoke the educated man or woman, then today it inaugurates the mindful one; the subject whose apparently infinite capacity for self-reflexivity trades the precision of language and thought for “the baggy fit of feelings before they’ve found their purpose” (Chew-Bose again). Yet the shamelessness with which the bargain is brokered these days can leave a reader feeling like something cheap and tawdry is at work: a shortcut hacked through the dense thicket of form and feeling. More than the lack of conviction or the preciousness of prose, it is the peacocking of the author that chafes. What should we make of writing that serves primarily, and sometimes exclusively, to present the author as a more admirably complicated type of human subject than others? It is the literary equivalent of the ill-mannered man who, thinking himself to be very mature, declares, “I may be an asshole, but look how self-aware I am about it.” [emphases added]


That right there might be the most succinct distillation of the problems with what has been known as the personal narrative essay or the first-person industrial complex content.   We'll skip ahead a bit:
Often described by her critics as a “distinctly” or “utterly unsentimental” writer (and human being), Gaitskill would have kept good company with the women Deborah Nelson assembles in her magnificent book Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil. Nelson’s study of the ethics and aesthetics of unsentimentality celebrates those icy, unsparing, and acid-tongued female artists who were committed to “looking at painful reality with directness and clarity and without consolation or compensation.” Many of these women depicted their own lives in uncomfortable detail: Mary McCarthy’s religious education, Susan Sontag’s breast cancer, Joan Didion’s loss of her husband and daughter. Others, like Simone Weil and Hannah Arendt, documented the horrors of industrial modernity: the miseries of factory work, the devastations of the Holocaust and the atomic bomb. Yet none believed that the representation of human experience, no matter how complex or agonizing or imponderable, demanded emotional expressivity. Indeed, for them, compassion for the human condition required the opposite: the evacuation of emotion from art. [emphasis added]
Their unsentimentality was not a personal failing, Nelson claims, but a carefully constructed aesthetic and ethical strategy; a “lifelong project” that perceived, with great and terrible urgency, the limits of empathy after World War II. For the women of Tough Enough, dwelling on the emotional effects of an experience often occluded painful reality, shrouding one’s objects of criticism behind the cheap veil of sentiment and self-regard. Bringing an audience to tears was a parlor trick that preyed on people’s perverse attraction to suffering—their ability to take any awful situation, no matter how remote, and make it about their uniquely hurt feelings. Yet pain and suffering were as ordinary as living and dying, and absent-minded feelings of woundedness and pity and even love were the most illusory ethical grounds on which to build a shared world. “Generally speaking, the role of the ‘heart’ in politics seems to me altogether questionable,” wrote Hannah Arendt to Gershom Scholem after he chided her for the “heartless” tone she took toward the Jews in Eichmann in Jerusalem. “You know as well as I how often those who merely report certain unpleasant facts are accused of lack of soul, lack of heart. . . . We both know, in other words, how often these emotions are used in order to conceal factual truth.”


Years ago when I contributed comments to The Wartburg Watch there were a few months where people reacted to my comments as though I were an apologist for Mark Driscoll.  That was a frustrating period of time.  It seemed that in spite of the fact that I had proposed that the disciplinary process of a member had been poisoned by double standards, conflicts of interest, retaliatory ploys and other things there were people who regarded my comments with distrust.  Why?  As best I could tell it was because I refused to denounce Mark Driscoll in the emotionally charged way that some others had (and still do in a few contexts).  Demonstrating that the arc of Driscoll's public narratives began to form irreconcilable differences that raised questions as to the veracity of the larger narratives wasn't the same thing as categorically declaring "Mark Driscoll is evil". I wasn't willing to say that then and I'm not even really willing to say that now.  I think Mark Driscoll reached a point where he betrayed every principle he once claimed to hold dear and that he compromised his ethics and integrity well past the point where I think a Christian can regard him as having any legitimate basis for serving in pastoral ministry of any kind.  His history of engaging in what I now regard as propaganda of agitation and integration is also considerable. 

But I resolved to take a course in which I did what I could to lay out what the history of Mars Hill was in a way that let people read through it all and come to conclusions about whether to stay or leave.  I didn't tell people to leave.  I suppose in a way that gets to the next part of Emre's piece I'm interested in quoting:

... More than a fad and more than a form, we might think of the personal essay as a contract between reader and writer. The contract is not necessarily an emotional or intimate one, but, like all contracts, it is mutually constructed and it demands clarity. Just as the writer commits her imperceptible acts of cognition to language, asking the reader to accept this language as a poor proxy for her inner life, so too does the reader acknowledge and participate in this fantasy of self-construction. Together, reader and writer act as co-creators of a new fictional persona, the knowing self. This task is impossible, or at least impossible to derive pleasure from, without particularity and concreteness—a sense of reciprocity and respect.

To this I would add a warning a journalism professor shared decades ago about the editorial, that nobody actually cares what you think, they want to know what the facts are.  If there's a thread in the personal narrative essay as a literary and critical form it's that it is in some sense usually some kind of journalism.  I would venture to say that that is the contract between reader and writer with a non-fiction short form such as the essay.  This doesn't mean that every essay has to inform or teach, exactly, but that we simply don't read non-fiction the way we read fiction.  The way a music professor I knew years ago might put it is to say we must never underestimate the obvious.  We can say that life is messy and ineffable in an essay and that is one thing, but at another level a baby who has had a blow out moment has a full diaper and that is a situation that is messy and, for the baby, ineffable.  But we are not babies ... or at least supposedly we aren't. 

I suppose the thing that these kinds of essays about personal essays revolve around but do not generally directly address is something I found myself thinking about a lot as I wrote for years about the height and decline of Mars Hill.  Jesus said that you will know the truth and the truth will make you free, but Jesus didn't say that once you know the truth it will make you look awesome.  In the wake of the collapse of Mars Hill there were all manner of predictable thinkpieces providing pious bromides for the red and the blue and the left and the right and the faithful and faithless.  My argument then as now is to say this--if the lessons you want to impart to the world about what happened at Mars Hill Church in Seattle are even the least bit self-exonerating, self-justifying lessons then you learned nothing at all and are out to sell us something.  What the may often turn out to be is a new contribution to the first-person industrial complex or the personal narrative genre.

The blight of the personal essay or the first-person industrial complex, at least as Emre's writing works toward examining that, is that it is full of people who want to arrive at self-exonerating "truths".  When that path is taken up the path is a literary sacrament of self-vindication that we don't really need. 

at the NYT Thomas Mallon proposes an axiom that critics of every stripe should read more, think longer and write less.

Thomas Mallon


In an essay for Harper’s Magazine in 1959, Elizabeth Hardwick worried that books were being “born into a puddle of treacle” instead of the once-colder shower of scrutiny she could recall. The bedside manner that she deplored has become only more marked in the intervening decades, as the reviewing of fiction and poetry has fallen less to professional critics and more to fellow novelists and poets — colleagues who don’t wish to run into those they’ve disapproved of while riding the same circuit of readings and writers’ conferences. Today’s literary reviews too often turn into participation trophies, quiet tour-guide appreciations. Few things, of course, are duller than self-indulgent put-downs; but informed and spirited dismissals are another matter, and they remain in too-short supply.

So do informed and spirited approvals.[emphases added] The phrase “everyone’s a critic,” once the complaining sigh of the creator, is today closer to being a literal truth. Criticism was always (and certainly in Arnold’s time) vulnerable to careerism and hackery, but amid the pingings of Twitter and along the web pages of Goodreads and LibraryThing and Amazon, the fast one-star slash and the instant five-star burble are now given the same algorithmic weight as the lengthy and well-considered three- or four-star comment. There are, one should note, many of the latter, but they always seem about to drown in the shrill orthographical chaos surrounding them, complaints often written by those who look forward to the demise of critics — and editors — with a populist glee.
Far removed from all this, and from most reality, we have academic literary criticism, now reducing literature to fodder for pseudoscientific cultural studies, taking its first duty to be the discovery of ways in which books can cause crushing personal offense. Students are fed literary theory before they’ve read an appreciable number of literary texts to which those theories might be applied. It’s all telescopes and no stars. [emphasis added] Looking back on his own long critical career, in a lecture called “To Criticize the Critic” (1961), T.S. Eliot took note of the theoretical concepts he had developed (“dissociation of sensibility,” “objective correlative”), but declared that “my own theorizing has been epiphenomenal of my tastes, and . . . in so far as it is valid, it springs from direct experience of those authors who have profoundly influenced my own writing.” Theories, like standards, should arise inductively; the critic has to remind himself that he exists because of the author and in service to the reader. The simplest prescription for better criticism of all kinds — electronic, journalistic, academic — remains: read more; think longer; write less. [emphasis added]

There's two reasons this ending jumped out.  Semicolons?  Really?  Was that a complex series?  No. 

But then there's the thought I've had about how it seems I have written much less this year than earlier years.  We're at just 120 odd posts this far into 2017. 

I think a caveat for this sort of generalizing is that we should not get too fixated on categories of high and low.  I plan to address that division later when I finally finish reading all of John Borstlap's The Classical Revolution.  But another way of putting it, which I've demonstrated elsewhere, is that I'm willing to discuss Batman cartoons as seriously as I would discuss novels by Jane Austen or Fyodor Dostoevsky.  If I talk about Adolf Schlatter or Emil Brunner I'll take that seriously just as I would discussing anime by Mamoru Oshii or the animated series The Last Airbender.  I don't feel at all bad that I gave up on Game of Thrones after one season; that I never even bothered with The Sopranos or Breaking Bad or Mad Men or The Walking Dead.  I did, however, feel bad that I had managed to not catch The Last Airbender and Samurai Jack back when they were actively on television. I went back and fixed that! 

One of my college friends told me that what he thought was both funny and cool about what I write is that I really do treat Batman: the animated series as being at the same level as a Dostoevsky or Kafka novel.  Why not? If critics take their literary and analytic discipline seriously why can't we take cartoons as seriously as we take works in a literary canon? 

The concern that students are being given the tools before they've read enough texts to use them is an interesting concern.  It's not one that I can really speak to since I'm not an academic and am not in academia.

But in terms of the criticism I've written I'm happy to have written a few thousand words about a Stevie Wonder song; another few thousand about the guitar sonatas of Wenzel Matiega; patterns of social identity in Pixar films, specifically Ratoutille; and, of course, the many essays I wrote for the 20th anniversary of Batman: the animated series, indexed at this blog.  I feel like my critique of nostalgia for 1980s cartoons was unfocused.  I knew I wanted to address what I regarded as an ill-advised nostalgia I was hearing from guys in my generation about how the 1980s cartoons were better than the 1990s and 00's cartoons.  That's not true, really.  If you happen to like G1 Transformers more than Samurai Jack you're welcome to that.   If you like G. I. Joe or Thundercats more than Justice League Unlimited or The Powerpuff Girls you're welcome to that, too.  I'd still say you're wrong across the board.  If you like the old Ducktales better than Superman: the animated series ... eh, actually I remember Ducktales being a pretty well-made show. 

I could have done a better job articulating the idea that the rose-colored lenses of you remembering with nostalgia the stuff you liked when you were a kid isn't the same thing as being able to defend subjecting a future generation to the show.  But I've got another direction I want to go with the idea, seeing as film critics are understandably incensed that they may be assigned to review yet more Transformers films. Those are films in which critics pass judgment and reward themselves for the good sense and good taste to hate Michael Bay's films on general principle.  I've been percolating thoughts about that but they'll take some time.  The irony for me is that all my thoughts about the cultic elements of Transformers have come to mind because I was reading about the total work of art in the European avant garde because I was flabbergasted at Francis Schaeffer seeming to have never familiarized himself with Wagner's operas and theories associated with those operas.  Wagner had magical rings and incestuous love affairs before Game of Thrones was conceived or Tolkien had hobbits carrying a piece of jewelry to a mountain.

Perhaps one of the things criticism can help us remember is that we're more apt to recycle ideas that we don't quite realize we're recycling.  But that may just be a lead in to another post.

Film Crit Hulk has an epiphany tha tmovies are propaganda

Did you know that America still makes propaganda films?

Oh yeah. All the damn time. Seriously, ask yourself how many war films or even just blockbusters still feature US Military rushing into conflicts? How many feature these men sacrificing themselves? Doing their best, maybe making mistakes, but always emerging out the other side as somber heroes in some way? How many superhero movies feature said heroes rushing in, saving faceless foreigners in the crowd? How many sad, tragic films end up showing the American flag as some kind of beacon of hope? How many, even the most critical, represent Americans as being the most important people at the center the world purely by virtue as always being the main characters?

It's strange that we never think of this as being propaganda. No, we think of IT as being "default." Stories that are just stories. And they're all Americans because we're just reflecting our own selves. It's the kind of thing we take so easily for granted. I remember when first watching Doctor Who, I kept marveling at the idea that aliens were always picking London as their target vs. the "obvious" choices of New York or DC. But I was thinking of us as a default. Seems so harmless, right? Well, when these American movies go out into the larger world, you better believe they manifest as propaganda. For they paint a picture of the world that says, we are the center, we are the storytellers, we are the ones who matter, while they are just the fodder for conflict. As an outsider, you can see it plain as day. But from the inside, you miss the real problem that these movies often represent our foreign interests as purposeful, yet sometimes complex, but ultimately nothing short of benevolent, as we are the heroes of all the "the others" out there. This is absolutely propaganda. And perhaps we would we see it more clearly if we could get out of our own myopia and associations. Or to put it more succinctly...

The thing is, what I'm not 100% sure FilmCritHulk fully appreciates is that Wonder Woman can be (and has been) considered Americanist propaganda. Josephine Livingston made a point of saying so over at The New Republic.  In the comments section there's a reliable mention of how all art is propaganda but that not all propaganda is art.  Let's take a step further, all art is cultural imperialism and the ultimate question is what cause that imperialism is for.   I've enjoyed reading FilmCritHulk over the years but FCH might find it easy to forget that blue state cultural imperialism is still cultural imperialism.  It's no less a colonialist Pax Americana if we're talking about Star Trek  than if it's Red Dawn.  What may characterize contemporary American liberal art criticism is a bad conscience about the nature of the cultural imperialism.  It's easy to look down on the military industrial establishment while pardoning the sins of the entertainment industries as sacrifices and struggles taken up in the name of art. 

As the comments roll on one commenter using the alias MysteryArab insisted:

Propaganda is only so when its core function is warfare. To claim otherwise is to claim Cadbury's ads are propagandizing on behalf of chocolate. These fields do overlap, primarily because they are dependent on their mediums. They are not the same, though. There's a difference between ideology in art and propaganda. Calling Black Hawk Down propaganda, for example, is like calling beer commercials pornographic. I get what you're saying, and of course we can find some cerebral, categorical overlap, but you're not gonna jerk off to a Miller TV spot are you.

So marketing is marketing but it's only propaganda when the marketing is aimed at warfare?  How literally might one have to mean shots fired about the warfare part?  The cola wars were marketing wars but there was no propaganda as such?  That seems ever so slightly hard to believe.  It's not just that the fields overlap, it's that they differ not so much in the tools of the trade as the level of direction.  IF someone wanted to say the distinction between propaganda and marketing is that of a state vs a corporation using coordinated mass media and multimedia campaigning to achieve an end then maybe that holds up. 

Still ... that "warfare" assertion seems pretty weak.  To borrow categories introduced by Jacques Ellul half a century ago, couldn't this sort of claim mistakenly fixate on propaganda of agitation at the expense of considering more pervasive categories such as sociological propaganda or propaganda of integration?  When Marston made Wonder Woman he was explicit that he was making propaganda to depict the kind of women he believed should run the world.  It can seem as though there is a pious bromide that propaganda has to have some nationalist/militarist end in mind in order to qualify as such.  That hardly seems to be necessary.

As Ellul put it decades ago, there's a temptation to regard "our" stuff as news and factual reporting whereas "they" make propaganda when we've reached a point where every modern technologically "advanced" society cannot help but employ all possible methods of propaganda up to and including what is now regarded as public education. 

There was at least one commenter, if memory serves, who wrote that if it took Film Crit Hulk watching a Chinese action film to recognize that films are propagandistic that's sorta too bad. 

Sunday, August 27, 2017

yet more incubation

I still want to blog about the Koshkin cycle but I figure while I'm at it I want to do analytic overviews of the cycles by Rekhin and Dzhaparidze, too.  It will likely be skeletal on a post-by-post basis for each prelude and fugue that I decide to tackle.  One of the tricky parts is that these are cycles that, at present, there are either recordings of or published scores for but no comprehensive presentation at hand for each cycle.

Rekhin's entire cycle is published as two books in score form but there isn't a complete commercially available recording.  You can get the Tervo performances as audio files from Classical Archives (of course, did that).  The preference at this point is to try to compile notes and observations about the parts of Rekhin's cycle for which you can not only purchase scores but also at some point hear audio for too. Necessarily that means only about half of the cycle could be discussed with the currently available stuff.

Koshkin's entire cycle is, of course, published, and it's a pretty fun cycle.  As yet we have videos of something more like a third of the cycle and the quality of the videos is excellent.  But having familiarized myself with a pretty good swath of Koshkin's work over the last twenty years I feel considerably more confident attempting to discuss his cycle even absent a commercially available recording of his complete cycle.  There should be one.

The Dzhaparidze cycle is not officially published at this point but it has been recorded in full and the recording is nicely done and, well, I've been studying counterpoint for decades so I feel relatively confident I can discuss the kinds of compositional procedures you can hear as you listen carefully. 

I am willing to say at this preliminary stage that I really like the Koshkin and Dzhaparidze cycles and the Rekhin cycle is okay but I have some issues with it.  But to fairly explain what those issues are I'd need to compile more observations about the cycle and there's some stuff from Leonard B Meyer (surprise! not) that can help elucidate what some of my concerns have been about contrapuntal cycles from formerly Soviet bloc regions. 

For now the thumbnail observation is that though there's a lot of wonderful music in this tradition (very contra Adorno) composers can tend to fixate on the big cyclical nature of polyphonic cycles at the expense of cohesion within each respective prelude and fugue and it's at this sort of level that Rekhin's cycle can feel unsatisfying.  Take any individual prelude and fugue and there will be something interesting going on but many a time the relationship between the prelude and the fugue is tenuous.  In Baroque and other eras the prelude very often establishes the nature of the vocabulary, grammar and syntax of the musical language that will permeate the fugue.  In Rekhin's cycle a prelude may be in an observably different style or idiom than the corresponding fugue, to the point where it seems he's shifted from one century to another.  If this were in some other formal context besides preludes and fugues that could work. A George Rochberg can switch around styles violently in large-scale string quartets because there's a scale for that; the macrostructural elements are given time to compare and contrast.  Since on average fugues are rarely longer than two to three minutes if they are even two minutes long, the contrasts between a prelude and fugue can be too jarring if there isn't an immediate, audible basis for the stylistic pivot based on some level of gestural correspondence.  Which Rekhin manages to pull off in the B flat major prelude and fugue but I want to get to that in due time.

I've been debating whether to blog about contrapuntal cycles for keyboard, too.  I am more appreciative of the Shostakovich cycle as time goes by.  It is one of the best such cycles even if it seemed to me he had a propensity for adding one more voice than needed in his fugal textures.  His subjects were always so wonderfully formed, though, I ended up forgiving this particular complaint.  I know he's popular to dislike but I still like Hindemith's Ludus Tonalis, if that tells you anything.

But I was thinking of blogging about Nikolai Kapustin's cycle of preludes and fugues.  I've seen bits and pieces written about his work by scholars and I do think his set of 24 preludes and fugues merits further discussion.  I'm afraid all his piano sonatas are in one ear and out the other and that I'm afraid none of them stick with me but his fugal cycle is solid music.  His cycle, and what I've been able to see and hear of Michelle Gorrell's cycle of preludes and fugues, offer what are, at least for my interests, the most compelling attempts in East and West to arrive at a fusion of contrapuntal writing with the idioms of jazz, blues and ragtime.

I think that in several key ways Gorrell has done better by the syntactics and procedural possibilities of fugue as fugue, while Kapustin has the more incendiary, virtuosic approach--his subjects can be fantastic but there are moments where the virtuoso approach hijacks possibilities of more streamlined textures.  Gorrell, for want of a better way of putting this now, writes the kinds of fugues that, however showy, reveal her understanding that polyphonic art is anchored to vocal idioms--Kapustin's fugues are showpieces for virtuosic keyboard technique and there are times when the fugues are submerged to that virtuoso instrumental ethos. 

It's just that if I did that it'd be hugely time-consuming and I've mulled over writing some stuff about Rodion Shchedrin's set of preludes and fugues.  It might seem like a ridiculous thing for a guitarist composer to blog about but it's stuff I've debated, whether to tackle this stuff.  I've not yet considered blogging about Reicha's 36 fugues even though I like those, too. Probably the best place to mention Reicha's contribution to fugal writing would be as I blog through the Koshkin cycle.

And then there's still all that stuff I've been meaning to write about the problems with the remake of Ghost in the Shell.  I don't think the whitewashing controversy is really the most serious problem with the remake.  There are other, bigger problems that have to do with the sorts of problems American film-making has but I am trying to refamiliarize myself with Oshii's filmography because I think that what Americans seem to deliberately miss about his films is that the utopian and the dystopian are bound up together in the characters and plots and associated plot twists of Oshii's films, whether we're talking about the stories he writes himself or the ones that are scripted from him (i.e. the original Ghost in the Shell anime).  Particularly lacking in Western discussion of Oshii's films in what little has been said about the remake is Oshii's penchant for films that subversively reappropriate and qutoe or allude to biblical texts.  Oshii had a point saying that it would have made more sense for Americans to try remaking Patlabor than Ghost in the Shell but in both cases what American studio film-making would reject would be the comingling of the dystopian with the utopian that permeates Oshii's best work.

And I'm still hoping to write a bit about the Michael Bay Transformers franchise and the longevity of one of the more reviled franchises in American pop culture.  Ironically I read a few books about the total work of art that were intended to be part of a long-form critique of Francis Schaeffer's trilogy but along the way I began to think about how explications of the avant garde ideals of 19th century Europe could have found their apotheosis not in high art but in mass culture.  So I might need to experiment with ideas about that--it's hard to shake this half-jocular inspiration to say that if Walter Benjamin were around today he'd be analyzing the Bayformers franchise rather than the high end high art stuff.  But I'm still feeling like there's some extra reading and study I want to do for that one, too.  For now let's just propose an idea for consideration, that you won't always realize that the toys you play with shape your imagination in ways that you stop thinking about after you've decided you grow up but the shaping of your outlook has been deeply informed by that play as ritual all the same. 

And, yeah, there's stuff about Justice League I hope to get back to.  The next one should be Green Lantern but it's been months since I've been watching JLU.  It's been a challenging year in the offline world this year and I've been trying to juggle a lot of projects, obviously. 

In a way this gets me thinking about something I've seen evangelicals endlessly wringing their hands about.  All these men and women ... they're not getting married as young as they used to!  They're getting married in their mid to late 20s which is just a scandal if it wasn't for the fact that these things happen.  But, no, my real joke is to note that when evangelicals talk about how flummoxed they are that men and women aren't marrying on the one hand and on the other hand lamenting the loss of Christian intellectuals and cultural activity it's as though they just cordon off from their brains the possibility that the grandest contributions to Christian intellectual and spiritual reflection may have a history, not least in the West, of having been pioneered by a bunch of guys who made promises to never get laid.  If all the people who are supposed to be making great works of cultural and intellectual and artistic activity are so busy trying to make enough money to pay the bills to feed the children they and their wives have brought into the world there's not going to be a lot of time left over to write like a Puritan, is there?  Because, after all, the Puritans had no internet and parenting ideals were kind of different back then, weren't they?  Gone are the days when a Richard Baxter could advise unmarried men that perhaps they should stay unmarried if they have the self-control for it because it was the unmarried who were able to devote themselves more steadily to Christian philanthropy.  But I've joked enough about the ethic of heteronormative biological determinism in neo-Calvinist scenes where all straight male erections are construed as prima facie evidence of the need to marry elsewhere at this blog.